Wilfong in the driver’s seat for Saturday’s Night of Champions at Hawthorne

by Neil Milbert

After Kyle Wilfong ended Casey Leonard’s six-meeting reign as the champion driver during Hawthorne Race Course’s winter meeting, the former’s career has skyrocketed during the summer meeting.

On Sept. 3, Wilfong warmed up for the main event on the Illinois racing calendar, Saturday’s Night of Champions, by putting on what is believed to be the finest driving performance in Hawthorne harness racing history.

He drove seven of the winners on the 10-race card and finished second in two races.

Indicative of how much Wilfong is in demand as a catch-driver, the winners came from the barns of six trainers.

“I’m confident the horses I’m driving are razor sharp,” said Wilfong, who sat out only one race.

Five of his conquests came in Night of Champions qualifying races:

Marvelous Mystery and Radiant Diamond won their eliminations for the $125,000 Fox Valley Flan for 2-year-old filly trotters;

Funky Wiggle was victorious in her prep for the $85,000 Beulah Dygert Memorial for 3-year-old filly trotters;

Annas Lucky Star captured her qualifier for the $62,000 Carl Becker Memorial for older trotting mares;

Scorecard Dandy was successful in her elimination for the $62,000 Tony Maurello Memorial for older pacing mares.

Wilfong’s two runner-ups also advanced: Fox Valley Kia will be competing in the $185,000 Incredible Tillie for 2-year-old filly pacers and Dandy’s Mnm earned a spot in the $105,000 Plum Peachy for 3-year-old filly pacers.

The preceding night, Wilfong drove three elimination winners: Fox Valley McKee in a qualifier for the $154,000 Incredible Finale for 2-year-old colt and gelding pacers; Fox Valley Crete in an elimination for the $93,000 Robert F. Carey Jr. Memorial for 3-year-old male pacers; and Goomster in a prep for the $144,000 Kadabra for 2-year-old male trotters.

The five races worth more than $100,000 are the most lucrative on the 12-race card that is exclusively for Illinois-conceived and foaled standardbreds.

Named in honor of the long-time Illinois breeder, track announcer and auctioneer who died last year, the Carl Becker Memorial is a new addition to the program.

The introduction of the Becker Memorial means that the queen of Illinois standardbred racing, Annas Lucky Star, no longer have to face male foes as she did last year when came in third in the Plesac for older trotters.

With Wilfong in the sulky, the 8-year-old set a Hawthorne record for older mares on Aug. 6 when she won an open race in 1:53.3.

Annas Lucky Star is going into the Becker Memorial with 54 triumphs in her 121 lifetime starts and earnings of $576,708 highlighted by a career best clocking of 1:53.1 as a 4-year-old at the Springfield State Fairgrounds.

Following last weekend’s stellar showing Wilfong has what looks like an insurmountable lead in the summer meeting driver standings — 63 winners versus 46 for the runner-up Leonard and 45 for third place Atlee Bender.

Vying with Wilfong for the spotlight on the Night of Champions will be Fox Valley Gemini in the $62,000 Robert S. Molaro Memorial for older male pacers. Owned by Jim Ballinger, trained by Terry Leonard and driven by his son, Casey, the 7-year-old gelding will be in quest of his sixth straight Night of Champions triumph after winning the Molaro for the last three years, the Carey Memorial in 2018 and the Incredible Finale in 2017.

In his elimination last weekend, Fox Valley Gemini gave every indication that he’s ready to try to embellish his remarkable success story. Leading all the way, he won by a widening 10 ½ lengths in 1:52.4. It was the 52nd victory of a 102-race career in which he has won 52 times and earned $662,537, and it gave him a 22-race 2022 resume highlighted by 7 wins, 5 places and 6 thirds.

Casey Leonard is taking the latest victory with a grain of salt because it was a three-horse race and an absentee was He’zzz A Wise Sky, scratched by the track veterinarian due to sickness. In his last two starts the 5-year-old horse finished out of the money in races at Scioto Downs and Hoosier Park.

“But those were stakes races and he’s unbeaten at Hawthorne this summer,” pointed out Leonard, who is very aware that Fox Valley Gemini finished behind He’zzz A Wise Sky in the latter’s last three starts there. In each of these races the younger horse, who is trained by John Filomeno and driven by Wilfong, went off the favorite. Two of the races were won in 1:49.4 and the other in 1:50.

Earlier in the year, He’zzz A Wise Sky recorded one of his 12 victories in 21 outings in a career best time of 1:48.3 at the 5/8ths mile track Oak Grove.

He’zzz A Wise Sky was victorious in his Night of Champions races as a 2-year-old and 3-year-old (when he was the Illinois Horse of the Year) but last year he finished third as the 3-5 favorite in the Molaro Memorial after leading until the final eighth.

Fox Valley Gemini left from post 6, while He’zzz A Wise Sky had the No. 7 slot.

Both Leonard and Wilfong felt the post positions were a significant factor.

“If Gemini draws outside of me it’s totally different,” Wilfong said. “I wouldn’t have had to park so long on the first turn and wouldn’t have had to go so hard.

“But give credit to Gemini — he’s a terrific horse.”

Fox Valley Gemini is one of eight winners in the 2021 event trying to replicate their triumphs Saturday night:

• Fox Valley Exploit is attempting to defend her championship in the Maurello Memorial.

• Apple Valley and Fox Valley Ozzy are moving up to the Plum Peachy and Carey Memorial after winning their championship races for 2-year-old pacers.

• Funky Wiggle in the $85,00 Beulah Dygert Memorial and Lousdobb in the $88,000 Erwin Dygert Memorial are trying to do the same thing in their trotting events.

• Defending champion Talk About Valor will be challenged by last year’s Erwin Dygert Memorial winner Rndmnunpredictable in the $62,000 Plesac for aged male trotters.

As he did last year, Leonard will be driving Lousdobb for trainer Steve Searle and Fox Valley Ozzy for Gary Rath.

Fox Valley Ozzy has 4 wins and 7 places in 15 races this year. One of the seconds came in the elimination when the 1-10 favorite lost to 11-1 longshot Fox Valley Crete by a neck. His previous two starts saw him win at Springfield and DuQuoin.

Lousdobb has taken four in a row, giving him seven victories in nine starts this year. He was second and sixth in his only losses.

According to Leonard, Lousdobb had an excuse for finishing sixth on July 22 at Hawthorne. “There were a bunch of rocks on the racetrack and I punctured a tire,” he said. “It was by no means his fault that he lost.”

Like Wilfong and the Leonards, Flacco Family Farms, LLC is going into the Night of Champions with a sky-high profile.

Last year, horses solely owned or co-owned by Dr. Richard Flacco’s stable, won three of the 11 races and all three of the winners were homebreds (Rndmnunpredictable, Lousdobb and Ryan’s Loan Shark).

Lou’s Legacy, the Flacco stallion, sired two of the winners and three third place finishers. In the five trotting races the now 16-year-old son of North America’s 2004 Trotter of the Year Windsong’s Legacy and Lady Love McBur sired 40% of the contestants (19 of 47).

“He was a gift from God,” said the 80-year-old doctor, who has trainers Steve Searle, Roshun Trigg and Jill Brown sending out offspring on the Night of Champions.

Saturday night 14 horses solely owned or owned in partnership by Flacco Family Farms will be represented, including 5 of 10 in the Fox Valley Flan.

“We’re not as optimistic as we were the last two years,” said Dr. Flacco, who prefaced last year’s fine showing by winning with two homebreds in 2020. “But we’re happy.

“Your hole is important and you need racing luck.”

Finish Lines: Former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar is the co-owner and co-breeder of Fox Valley McKee, a 2-year-old gelding competing in the Incredible Finale…

While Wilfong is on his way to winning the driver title in a landslide, there was a deadlock in the trainer standings after last weekend’s action. Erv Miller and Amy Husted, wife of driver Kyle Husted, each had 22 winners…

The Hawthorne summer harness meeting that began on June 30 will reach the finish line on Sunday night. The thoroughbreds will take over the track on Sept. 23 and race for the duration of the year. A Jan. 7-March 20 harness meeting began Hawthorne’s unprecedented racing year followed by a spring thoroughbred meeting…

Hawthorne came into the racing world as a thoroughbred track in 1891 and in 1970 had the distinction of being the oldest of the seven Chicago metropolitan area racetracks when it held its inaugural harness meeting. Starting this year it has the distinction of being the only survivor.